Skeptics Question Osama Bin Laden Death, Asking for Proof


Conspiracy Theories: Public Questions Bin Laden's Death

In the president's speech last night, he avoided any mention of DNA or photographic evidence. But today, officials in the Obama administration told ABC News "There's no doubt it's him."

Officials said today they are "99.9 percent" certain that bin Laden was shot dead in Pakistan. They also cited CIA photo analysis matching physical features such as bin Laden's height.

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Any pictures of bin Laden would undoubtedly be gruesome, one of the reasons why the White House hasn't made them public. But the photos might be released in modified form -- just as they were in July 2003 when the U.S. government released photographs of Saddam Hussein's dead sons Uday and Qusay Hussein only after they had been touched up by a mortician.

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A U.S. intelligence official told ABC News bin Laden's DNA was compared with DNA from several of his relatives.

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Intelligence agencies have come to rely on DNA evidence as part of their anti-terrorism operations. A 2007 report prepared by the Center for Technology and National Security Policy states the FBI has a large inventory of DNA samples, which was how DNA testing confirmed in October 2006 that Muhsin Musa Matwalli Atwah, an Al Qaeda operative wanted by the United States in connection with the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings, had been killed in an air strike by Pakistani forces near the border with Afghanistan.

And if a relative isn't readily available in the U.S., how does the U.S. go about getting DNA from non-U.S. citizens? The report explains, "DNA samples from the terrorist's maternal family must be collected abroad. For this, foreign governments have been enlisted to help collect samples that can be compared with DNA from individuals captured or killed."

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Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia and author of the book "Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong," said bin Laden also could have also been identified via physical evidence, for example, a piece of clothing he sweated on, his hair -- if they locate the same profile in multiple pieces of evidence then they can be confident they have identified him.

The public's interest in this particular brand of proof has become more prominent, especially now that DNA evidence is regularly featured in crime shows such as "Law & Order" or Showtime's "Dexter."

"DNA is now the gold standard for identifying individuals," Garrett said. "Twenty years ago would we have demanded a fingerprint or bloodtest or comparison of the teeth? Maybe not."

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Although today's public wants to hear about DNA evidence in addition to photographic evidence, the public need for "proof" remains the same as it did 50 years ago. After Adolf Hitler's suicide in April 1945, conspiracy theories for years suggested Hitler was alive and in hiding. The Russian secret services came forward with a skull and jawbones. DNA results eventually showed the skull was that of a female.

Just two years ago the History Channel aired a series called "Hitler's Escape," suggesting that without a body the potential for speculation is seemingly endless.

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No doubt the bin Laden conspiracy theories will continue as people wait for visual proof of his death -- no matter how gruesome.

Edna B. Foa, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, says it's not surprising given the current political climate. After all, she said, "people are suspicious Obama wasn't born in the United States."

But a photo or DNA evidence provides little comfort. The terrorist network is called that for a reason -- it's so broad and far reaching that the death of bin Laden won't likely calm the public's fears, especially because there have already been so many rumors about his capture. Now that he has been caught, 10 years later, "It's not such a big deal in terms of influencing how people feel about being taken care of," Foa said.

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Solochier, whose father helped clean up New York City after 9/11, says seeing a photo wouldn't provide closure, "But it's a huge step in the right direction."

The Associated Press and ABC News on Campus reporters Danielle Waugh and Ashley Jennings contributed to this report.

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